The Evolution Of Androgynous Fashion

There's been a new trend of sorts on our radar, and its name is androgynous fashion. Imagine riding the bus in the morning and side-eyeing a sheer pussy-bow blouse on the cute guy with the scruff reading his paper next to you, as well as the engineer boots and buzzed crew-cut of the woman standing by the door. It's not a side-eye of bewilderment, but of appreciation. Personally, I think we're on the verge of those scenes becoming more of the norm.

In the last couple of years, genderless designs in the clothes hitting our display windows have grown more common — the classic men versus women dichotomy blurring. Androgynous fashion is coming to the forefront in a big way, and it may come with underlining commentary about where our society is heading. Or better yet, what it's evolving towards.

Driving the shift is arguably contemporary open-mindedness that encourages gender fluidity. But this isn't the first time we've experienced androgyny in fashion. There was an evolution of androgynous fashion throughout the 20th century, and it's never been as simple as a means to pissing off our parents (though every eyeliner-wearing, bangs-in-my-eye-tossing bone in my body loves that idea). Aesthetic androgyny arguably stems from the desire not to want to be constrained by gender, and to have the freedom of deciding what we should or shouldn't wear.

There are other political threads to androgyny as well, whereby issues of feminism and the gay rights movement have intersected with expressing a non-binary aesthetic through clothing. So let's take a look at the androgynous trends throughout the 20th century, and how they questioned the extent to which we should follow gender roles.

1. 1910s: Coco Chanel Gave Women The Gift Of Pants

When you think Coco Chanel, you might think of little black dresses with slim cigarette pants, or chic Parisian women dabbing rose-colored lipsticks onto napkins. But you should also think of androgyny.

When Chanel started creating clothes in 1913 (right around the era of the Suffrage movement), women were just getting used to the idea of leaving the stuffy roles of Victorian femininity behind, including lace necklines and petticoats. Chanel personified the independent roles women were about to enter by providing them with the option of pants and masculine-like silhouettes.

While Chanel refused to call herself a feminist, as TIME reported, she did defend the idea that a person should express themselves based on how they feel, and not how their gender supposedly tells them to feel. If that meant trading in heavy gowns in favor of men's fabrics and styles, then so be it. Whether out of defiance or not, she "mixed up the vocabulary of male and female clothes," TIME added.

As Business Insider reported, Chanel herself said, "I gave women a sense of freedom. I gave them back their bodies: Bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding.”

According to Bridget DeChagas at NPR, "She was inspired by men's wear: shirts with clean collars, simple sweaters and loose belted jackets. She liberated women from constrictive clothing by making clothes that women could move in. Her designs were a symbol of the independent woman she was."

2. 1930s: A Different Kind Of Hollywood Glamour

Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were the daughters of a post-suffrage generation, meaning that the taste for a fierce type of independence and a need to shake conventional gender norms were likely on their radar. It's no wonder that the two stand out in Old Hollywood for their androgynous tendencies and flippant attitudes towards society's idea of femininity. From Hepburn walking around in her silk underwear on set until her confiscated pants were returned to her to Dietrich kissing a woman on screen while wearing a bow tie and top hat, these women weren't about to let their gender dictate how they should behave. And they expressed that casually through a middle finger in the form of pants.

Hepburn famously told Calvin Klein, "Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, 'Try one. Try a skirt,'" thus underlining just how laughable the idea of forcing someone into a style solely based on tired gender norms is. According to Vogue, she didn't just flirt with the idea of menswear. Rather, she embraced it fully, wearing "Brooks Brothers shirts bought from a secret girls-only counter at the back of the New York store."

And Dietrich did the same, along with bringing a non-binary understanding of gender into an era that was so not ready for it: A woman dressed as a man, kissing another woman? Oh my.

According to the BBC, "Bringing drag to glamorous new heights, the German-born actress famously donned a top hat, tux, and white bow tie for her role as cabaret singer Mademoiselle Amy Jolly in Josef von Sternberg's Morocco (1930). Still decades away from trousers becoming accepted as a fashion item for women, it was a bold move deemed as scandalous by some. But Dietrich, who performs a number in the film before downing a glass of champagne and planting a kiss on a well-to-do female punter, was all about pushing boundaries." And push these women did.

3. 1960s: Yves Saint Laurent's Emancipated Women

Whereas the '50s were largely characterized by suburban motherhood and career housewives, women in the '60s challenged the gender norms of their mothers by tearing into their closets and radicalizing them. According to The Guardian, Dr. Jo Paoletti's Sex And Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, And The Sexual Revolution claims that the unisex trend was a pillar of second-wave feminism and "was a baby-boomer corrective to the rigid gender stereotyping of the 1950s, itself a reaction to the perplexing new roles imposed on men and women alike by World War II."

As women enjoyed the sexual reawakening that The Single Girl persona offered them — "the type of woman that tosses her underwear, or rather, doesn't buy it in the first place," as outlined by Hilary Radner and Moya Luckett in Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality In The 1960s — Yves Saint Laurent stepped onto the scene in 1966, offering a radical new style that perfectly underlined the more masculine, aggressive role women were embracing. The first tuxedo for women was born.

YSL's muse Violeta Sanchez explained to the BBC that, at that time, it "was quite something for the stuffy bourgeois set to see women 'take possession of man’s attire, and the freedom it gave her. It took her out of that spot where she was fragile.'"

This started a revolution, whereby something so aggressively male and black-tie bourgeois became a symbol of female emancipation. According to Business Insider, dressing in it "was irreverent, daring, and on the cutting of fashion, whilst suggesting their alignment with burgeoning feminist politics — le smoking effectively demanded: 'If men can wear this, why can’t I?'" Borrowing from the boy's club truly became a social statement.

4. Late '60s: The Peacock Revolution

Hendrix in his paisley coats and velvet flares, the patterns clashing down his blouse eliciting a type of psychedelic acid trip. Mick Jagger with his poets' blouses and hip-skimming jeans, small hips swiveling to the beat of his set. The Thin White Duke in his catsuits and glitter makeup, his "glam period looking like a nod to another icon of androgyny: Katharine Hepburn." If these rock legends confirmed anything, it was that there was a revolution on our hands.

Up until this point, androgyny had focused on women breaking free from their rigid gender stereotypes, but it was men's turn to shake loose of their gendered tropes and constraints. Enter the Peacock Revolution: A counter-culture movement that started in London and that included spear-headers like The Beatles, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Jimi Hendrix, The Guardian reported. It was a new era: Homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain, the conservatism and social conformity of Wall Street fathers was being rejected, and the sexual revolution was starting to gain steam.

Just as women were about to experience their second wave of feminism, many men were just as seriously trying to see what they could find outside of their gendered expectations. Some grew their hair long, stole eyeliner from their mother's bathroom cupboards, dabbled in tight, feminine silhouettes, all largely meant to "break with the conformist traditionalism of their parents, but also as a way to explore and assert their individuality," as the Berg Fashion Library put it. They were embracing their feminine side without having their masculinity or sexuality come into question.

According to Toija Cinque, Christopher Moore, and Sean Redmond, authors of Enchanting David Bowie: Space/Time/Body/Memory, "The change in men's dress from drab to debonair in London in the '60s during the Peacock Revolution constituted the effect the adoption of gay men's dress style by the non-gay, male population." The need to aggressively defend their heterosexuality was dwindling, and feather boas and brocade prints came in its place.

5. 1980s: Prince And Grace Jones Rocked The Boat


Delicate and doe-eyed, with his slender hips clad in either a jumpsuit or go-go boots, the legendary Prince had a contradictory appeal to him: He was anything but traditionally masculine, but still felt like sex on a stick to many ladies of the world. Who knew a Liza Minnelli-approved amount of sparkles and '50s bouffants could feel so animalistic?

Well, completely blurring the line between the sexes was nothing short of rad. As Huffington Post explained, "Many women are thrilled by Prince because they readily see themselves in him, and vice versa, and the mutual love is visceral and real." His heels with the thin mustache and the silk suits with the male frame hinted at the fact that sexuality is on a spectrum, much like gender. This hetero man who embraced effeminacy championed the idea that breaking out of gender roles didn't have to have anything to do with sexuality. It was bigger than that.

Meanwhile, the world also had Grace Jones, who exuded an aggressive type of femininity: One that was balanced with a hard handed touch of masculinity. With her flattop hair, chiseled features, and buff physique, she walked the line of androgyny perfectly. As her partner Jean-Paul Goude told People, “Men think she’s sexy. Women think she’s a little masculine, and gays think she’s a drag queen.”

According to The Atlantic, however, the '80s felt like a "stylistic whiplash" of going back to more obviously gendered clothing after the flamboyant, gender-bending '70s. For that reason, Jones was an important symbol of feminism with her androgyny. She vocally expressed feeling both like a man and woman, and she didn't need to rely on anyone but herself.

Vogue shared an excerpt from her memoir, in which she wrote, “I never ask for anything in a relationship because I have this sugar daddy I have created for myself: me. I am my own sugar daddy. I have a very strong male side, which I developed to protect my female side. If I want a diamond necklace I can go and buy myself a diamond necklace.” Not only did she challenge the cultural idea of femininity, but she also protected her power by embracing androgyny.

6. 1990s: Grunge Blurred The Genders

Kurt Cobain played with his long blonde locks, eyeliner, and babydoll dresses. He rocked the hell out of sweaty grunge shows while wearing tiaras, sweeping up dirty tresses into pigtails, and sporting retro women's sunglasses that looked more like they belonged on a roller skate diner waitress than on a rock legend.

For Cobain, this was a way of questioning the limitations society puts on us. He embodied a new variation on the masculine heterosexual norm: A direct rejection of machoism. The Atlantic reported, "Using clothes to play with gender in this way isn’t just about looking pretty: It’s highlighting the edges of society, celebrating outsiders and questioning norms."

Gen X was ready to question things right along with him. According to Communities Of The Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture, "[Nirvana's] spectacular commercial successes entailed the popularization of non-heterosexist, anti-binarizing notions of gender and sexuality, the trumpeting of progressive political causes, and the representation of male experience in a high romantic and often decadent-aesthetic language." Nirvana and the band's grungy aesthetic stressed the likeness between the sexes, showing that men can cry over pain and wear babydoll dresses without having to put into question their sexuality.

As for women, grunge gave many of them an androgynous outlet as well. According to The Atlantic, "A recent New York Magazine story traced modern androgyny to grunge: Women donned flannel lumberjack shirts and combat boots while Kurt Cobain posed in ballgowns and house dresses."

Dressing in the same plaids, boots, and short cropped heads as their male counterparts, women were saying something about their strict gender roles, too. As fashion writer Alice Pfeiffer pointed out to The Guardian, they wanted to “indicate that they are not defined by their sex appeal."

Borrowing from each other's closets was helping both men and women express the different sides of themselves that didn't fall into neat binaristic categories.

7. 2010s: We Do It All Over Again

While it might have seemed like a novel idea when creative director Alessandro Michele sent men down his 2015 fall Gucci show in granny chic pussy-bow blouses and Audrey Hepburn-esque shrunken sleeve pea-coats, or when Saint Laurent marched male models down the catwalk in high heels and hot pink fur coats, it's easy to see that androgyny isn't new. Our need to define ourselves on our own terms, express ourselves in the way we feel on the inside, and not live according to a gender norm rule book has been long present.

When we have models like Ruth Bell shaving their hair down to a crew cut, macho rappers like Young Thug wearing sheer tulle dresses, or Lil B sporting chandelier earrings, and women embracing un-gendered styles like normcore and championing forgoing shaving their armpits or freeing the nipple, the underlying commentary that we no longer want to be shown how to act or what to look like is gaining momentum.

As Jonny Johansson, founder of ACNE, observed, "I’ve seen this new generation’s attitude to fashion where the cut, the shape, and the character of the garment is the crucial thing, rather then seeking approval from society or to follow set norms." Rather than interpreting an item as "boy" clothes or "girl" clothes (and subscribing to what cultural norms have dictated that those genders should mean), let's look at clothes and simply ask whether or not we like the style.

Gender norms are so passé, don't you think?

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Images: Warner Bros. (1); Paramount Pictures (1); Yves Saint Laurent (1); Thema Music (1); The Face (1); Marc Jacobs (1); Grace Jones (1)